Late in 2022, religious-right pseudo-historian David Barton trotted out a new historical and biblical misrepresentation designed to support his Christian nationalist political agenda. While speaking at a Truth & Liberty Coalition conference in Colorado in September, Barton claimed that Patrick Henry’s famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech and a letter written by President George Washington to a synagogue in Rhode Island both contained multiple biblical quotations that are today largely unrecognized by modern audiences.
In making this assertion, Barton was bolstering his argument that Americans of the founding era were so deeply knowledgeable about the Bible that they referenced it continuously in their writings and speeches, thus supposedly proving that Founding Fathers intended to create an explicitly Christian nation.
“Today we’re often told, on no, the Constitution is a secular document, it’s a godless document,” Barton regularly insists. “When people tell me that, I know that they’re biblically illiterate, they don’t recognize Bible verses.”
As with so many of the claims made by Barton, he provided no sources or documentation in support of his claims about Henry’s speech or Washington’s letter, but we happened to stumble across similar arguments in “Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers” by American University law professor Daniel Dreisbach.
In his book, Dreisbach—who appeared on Barton’s “WallBuilders Live” radio program earlier this year, despite the hosts’ penchant for false history—explained how the Founding Fathers used the Bible in a variety of ways, among them “to enhance the power and weight of rhetoric.” While Dreisbach notes that the founders did occasionally directly cite the Bible, they also frequently used what he called “bible-like language, that is, words, phrases imagery, or cadences that resemble, imitate, or evoke the language” of the Bible.
In making this case, Dreisbach cited Henry’s speech and Washington’s letter, the same two sources used by Barton. When we attempted to verify Barton’s original claim that Henry and Washington had both “quoted” multiple Bible verses, we largely came up empty because the Bible passages that Barton listed seemed to appear nowhere in either Henry’s speech or Washington’s letter.
The reason for that is because many of the Bible verses listed by Barton were not “quoted” by Henry or Washington but rather merely sounded like biblical speech, according to Dreisbach.
In the case of Washington’s letter, nearly all of the Bible verses cited by Barton also appear in Dreisbach’s book, the difference being that Dreisbach notes that Washington’s language merely sometimes resembles that found in the Bible, whereas Barton falsely asserted that they are direct quotes from the Bible.
Here is the slide that Barton showed listing the Bible verses allegedly quoted by Washington.
And here is the paragraph from Dreisbach’s book in which he discussed Washington’s use of biblical-sounding language in his letter.
As we reported in September, there were verifiable Bible quotations in both Henry’s speech and Washington’s letter, but nowhere near the number that Barton claimed. We were unable to verify the majority of verses cited by Barton simply because they were never actually quoted by Henry in his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech or Washington in his letter to a Rhode Island synagogue. Rather, Barton seems to have taken the information from Dreisbach’s book and, as is so often the case, misrepresented it.
As we have noted several times before, Barton’s career has been built largely on exploiting the biblical and historical ignorance of his own audiences to feed them a false narrative regarding the founding of this nation that serves primarily to promote his own modern-day Christian nationalist political agenda.
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